by Jessie Faulkner

The next time you pop an M&M in your mouth, you may be doing more than just satisfying a sweet tooth. You may be supporting the North Coast's dairy industry.

Humboldt Creamery, a nearly 80-year-old dairy-operator-owned cooperative in Fernbridge, may soon be selling powdered milk to the makers of M&M and Mars bars. A heavy-hitting old-timer among local food producers, the Fernbridge enterprise has been racking up a number of economic home runs recently. And they've all been pretty sweet.

Three years ago Humboldt Creamery launched its ice cream plant with plans to double production after five years. But demand increased so rapidly that in late October creamery officials decided to expand two years early at the cost of about $1.5 million, said Rich Ghilarducci, Humboldt Creamery chief executive officer.

In just three years, ice cream sales grew to 30 percent of the cooperative's business. In anticipation of the expansion, the original $9 million building was designed with space to spare. Doubling production now requires more equipment and, possibly, more employees. Specialized ice cream-production equipment has been ordered from European manufacturers and should be installed in March, Ghilarducci said.

The cardboard half-gallon cartons of Humboldt Creamery ice cream now have company from the plant's newest product -- the high-end Double Rainbow ice cream. Humboldt Creamery also makes ice cream for Western Family brand.

The story of Humboldt Creamery's success goes far beyond national borders and the namesake cartons of milk found on grocery store shelves -- which accounts for 7 percent of its sales.

Sixty percent of the cooperative's multimillion dollar sales come from powdered milk. Fifty-pound bags of the powdered milk are shipped as far as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Russia and Venezuela, Ghilarducci said. Stateside, 2,000-pound bags of the dry milk are regularly shipped throughout the country. Both Guittard and Ghiradelli Chocolates use Humboldt Creamery powered milk. Every year, he said, 20 million pounds of the product are sold.

"Most people don't realize it, (but) the dairy industry is the second largest in Humboldt County, after timber," Ghilarducci said.

But the nature of the industry has changed. When the cooperative was first organized in 1929, more dairymen shipped milk to the creamery, but the total volume was far less. Today, 90 members ship an estimated million pounds of milk per day to the river-side plant.

In the early days sales averaged $400,000 a year -- a mere fraction of today's double-digit, million-dollar revenues.


The creamery is not alone in making local food production history.

A billboard on Highway 101 welcoming motorists to "Big Loaf Country" doesn't begin to tell the story of one of the area's oldest food producers, Fluhrer Bakeries.

The bread maker celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, a century that's seen the annual sales rise to roughly $10 million and designate the Eureka-based company as the largest wholesale bakery between San Francisco and Eugene, Ore.

Now owned by a Los Angeles investment group, the company's management remains solidly North Coast. It's a management style, company President Kerry R. Glavich said, that allows the flexibility to respond quickly to opportunities and problems. A fourth-generation Humboldt County native, Glavich was promoted to the top seat after more than 23 years with the bakery.

Fluhrer's products include the flagship Big Loaf bread, Ferndale Farms, Logger and Humboldt Bay Sourdough. The latter is inching up to end Big Loaf's reign as top seller.

"It's always been a successful product, it's becoming our No.1," said Bert Cortez, Fluhrer Bakeries' sales manager.

The product's unique size and starter-based recipe are credited for the tangy white bread's success. The starter, originally acquired from a San Francisco bakery, has been in the plant more than 50 years and is regenerated three times a day, Glavich said.

Shoppers' preference for the rounded loaves led to one of the bakery's latest additions, Cracked Wheat Sourdough. The hearty loaves hit the shelves just before Christmas. Four more new products are headed to stores this year, all introduced as part of the bakery's 100th anniversary.

The anniversary year will also include a food fair of local producers and sponsorship of the Eureka's annual Rhododendron Festival Parade.

Not all baked goods put together at the Eureka plant bear the well-known name. The company is the licensed baker for Roman Meal and Poulsbo. Fluhrer's also holds the area's distribution contract for Hostess, Orowheat, Thomas' English Muffins and Svenhards pastry. It's no small undertaking for the company's 107 employees.

Fluhrer's marketing circle expanded to include the Redding area three years ago. Last year, residents of Chico and Marysville could stock up on Eureka-baked bread. On the coast, Fluhrer products can be found from Curry County, Ore., which includes Brookings and Gold Beach, south to Leggett.

The move inland isn't the first time the Bakery went out of the area with its products -- in the 1940s, Glavich said, the bakery had plants up and down what is now the Interstate 5 corridor.

The intent now is to build up the inland markets before taking on further expansion. Yet, management is keeping an eye on potential areas to add to Big Loaf Country.

BREWUS ROBUSTUS -- Humboldt County's five microbreweries

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